- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2012

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray presented a $9.4 billion spending plan on Friday that does not impose any new taxes or fees but relies on about $30 million in new traffic fines generated by automated-enforcement cameras.

The mayor’s operating budget for fiscal year 2013 closes a $172 million budget gap with $102 million in spending cuts and $70 million in revenue initiatives that also include expanded hours for alcohol sales.

The plan to increase “traffic-calming” measures, such as speed and red-light cameras is projected to bring in $24.8 million in revenue after the city spends nearly $5 million on camera equipment.

The revenue projection requires a massive expansion of a program that is already controversial, with police and proponents saying cameras promote safety, while opponents say their primary purpose is to pad city coffers.

Traffic cameras generated a record $80.4 million for the District in fiscal 2010 and were on pace to exceed that total in fiscal 2011, AAA Mid-Atlantic said in August after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the city.

In addition to the camera revenue, the mayor’s spending plan also seeks to recover $28.2 million in unpaid taxes and traffic fines through an aggressive system of penalties and monitoring.

Public education comprises more than 20 percent of Mr. Gray’s operating budget at just under $2 billion, a figure that includes almost $64 million to keep up with enrollment increases in the D.C. Public Schools and D.C. Public Charter Schools. It also lays out a six-year, $649 million plan to continue the modernization of city high schools.

The plan appears to acknowledge some priorities that caused disputes with council members in the course of last year’s budget process.

A proposal to fund 3,900 sworn officers in the Metropolitan Police Department likely will avoid a repeat of a spirited debate in 2011 over police staffing, after levels this year fell below a critical threshold of 3,800 officers.

Mr. Gray seeks a 3.8 percent increase in overall operating funds and a 4.2 percent increase in local funds from this year’s approved budget. The District had to cut spending and find $22 million local funding for several programs after losing $44 million in federal grants. Mr. Gray said federal cutbacks that begin Jan. 1 could add to the city’s fiscal challenges.

The fiscal 2013 budget will take effect on Oct. 1 after approval from the D.C. Council and Congress.

Among its other proposals, the mayor’s plan would allow city bars to stay open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends and let stores that sell alcohol open at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. in order to generate $5.3 million in sales tax revenue. It also would allow bars to stay open until 4 a.m. every night and allows restaurants to serve customers around the clock during presidential inauguration weeks in 2013 and 2017.

The budget offers tough choices, including a tighter fiscal belt around those “least able to contribute,” council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said.

“It’s not something I feel good about, but at the end of the day we have to make the most responsible decisions that we can make around the outcomes of the budget,” Mr. Gray told D.C. Council members in a morning briefing.

Like last year, the mayor’s plan calls for cuts to the District’s social safety net, even though human support services account for the largest chunk — 40 percent — of the budget.

Notably, the plan cuts hospital services and specialty care from the D.C. Alliance, which provides care to about 20,000 low-income people who are not on Medicaid.

Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Health, told the mayor his cuts to the program are “very serious.”

Signaling future debate, Mr. Catania proposed a prospective freeze on cost-of-living increases among pension plans for police, firefighters and teachers to cover the alliance-related costs and then some, noting pension expenses are sending the District “right back to bankruptcy.”

Council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, questioned why the mayor did not include more funding for the Department of Employment Services in light of the vast number of constituents who stop him on the street and ask about jobs.

“I’m tired of people beating me up over an area that is initially your responsibility,” Mr. Barry said.

Mr. Gray hopes to spur workforce development east of the Anacostia River with a $113 million in capital investment, including $58 million in FY2013, at the campus surrounding St. Elizabeths Hospital.

The city is also investing $54 million in development at the Skyland Town Center in Ward 7, MacMillan Reservoir in Northwest and at the Walter Reed campus just south of Silver Spring.

Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, said the 62-acre parcel the city will acquire from the defunct Army hospital has generated more interest from developers than any other site.

“It’s more than a game-changer,” she said.

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